Why We Never Really Leave School

Last Friday, I headed out to my old school, Camosun College, to give a talk to the Computer Systems Technology students. The talk (which I gave with Mel Reams, another Camosun graduate) was all about starting a career in video game development. As I stood in front of the students, consulting my notes and trying to communicate what I thought would be the most valuable nuggets of advice to help them pursue that game career, I actually felt a bit envious of them.

I could remember my own college years and my burning desire to work in games: it was what drew me into computer programming in the first place. I could also remember Victoria being sadly lacking in game companies. Oh sure, Disney Interactive were here at the time. But they operated in such a secretive fashion that they were practically a secret society. And, never knowing the secret handshake, I never made it into their hallowed halls. In addition, there was no one around to tell aspiring game developers the way to get into the industry. It was a mystery that I had to solve on my own.

These days, there are numerous game companies operating in Victoria and more opening all the time. And as for someone to pierce the mystery of gaining employment in the industry, they now have folks like Mel and myself to give them a hand. Getting a game job is easier than ever, but as we mentioned in our talk, it still requires a bit of work. The most important points I’ve summarized here below:

Finish school

The game industry is still a highly competitive one, so you need to use every advantage that you can to make sure that your resume goes in the interview pile. A diploma or degree will give you a leg up over those with equivalent qualifications but no piece of paper. A diploma also shows that: a.) you know how to code and b.) you can finish what you start – both valuable traits to have. Also, if it turns out that the game industry isn’t your cup of tea, you can still get a decent job in software development.

Do your research

Find out which languages and technologies are being used in the industry and learn them. Research the companies that you want to apply to. Determine everything you can about them: how long they’ve been around, what games they’ve made, what games they’re making, who works in key positions, etc. And play their games! Also figure out what a good salary is for where the company is located. You can find out most of this stuff online.

Network

Get out and meet the people who are working in the industry. Find out if there are any local game developer groups and join them. Victoria has the LevelUp group which is also a chapter of the International Game Developers Association or IGDA (A professional organization that you should definitely look into). Go to game conferences if you can afford to. GDC in San Francisco is the big one, but it can be expensive. Look for other ones closer to home like the Penny Arcade Expo and the IGDA Summit both in Seattle. A pass to either is way more affordable and Seattle is a 2.5 hour ferry trip away.

Make games

With all of the inexpensive and free tools available, it’s super easy to make your own games these days. Start small with small projects that are simple. Learn by doing. The goal is to finish something. It’s harder than it sounds, but do it. Even if it’s a crappy little project, you’ll feel great. Clone an existing game as an exercise. Create a mod of an existing game. Sign up for game jams. Join up with other game developers in small project groups. Just make games.
Keep learning

The game industry is a young one and as such is always growing and changing. You need to grow and change with it to stay on top of it. Develop a habit of continuous learning. If you’re coming from school you’re already on the learning train, keep on riding it.

Video or it never happened

I discovered today that Casual Connect Seattle have now posted the video recording of my talk for the 2012 IGDA Summit along with a whole bunch of other talks from that same conference. The fact that I mention this means that I have watched the video and wasn’t horribly embarrassed by seeing myself in it. In fact, I enjoyed it enough to want to share it with you. You can find it here.

Besides watching the talk and the excellent discussion afterwards with Wendy Despain and Richard Dansky, I spent a good deal of time watching other presentations that I had attended and also ones that I had missed for one reason or another during the conference.  I particularly enjoyed watching Luke Dicken’s Skynet and You: Game AI for the Uninitiated and Brandii Grace’s Design Secrets Revealed! How to Attract a Wider Female Audience. You can find the complete list of videos here on Casual Connect’s Youtube IGDA Summit List. Check it out and let me know which are your favourite talks.

A Summary of the Summer Summit

As mentioned in the previous post, I recently attended the 2nd annual IGDA Summit in Seattle. Monday night, at the August monthly meeting for the Victoria BC chapter of the IGDA, I gave a short presentation on the highlights of the summit. I spent some time talking about the various talks and the topics that they covered: Entrepreneurship, Advocacy, Monetization, Quality Assurance, Writing, Intro and Microtalks. I mentioned the great keynotes that I watched from Kim Swift of Airtight Games and Julie Uhrman, the CEO of Ouya. I told them about the parties and other fun events too. But what I really tried to focus on, what I thought was the most important, was the opportunity to meet other developers.

The best thing about the IGDA Summit is meeting other game developers. The theme of the conference is “Developers helping Developers” and nowhere is this more evident as when you are mingling with your fellow attendees and having a spirited chat. I met quite a few veterans of the industry and they were all more than happy to discuss various aspects of game development and answer all questions. Whether discussing the talk we just saw, chatting about current affairs in the industry, or just debating the merits of the latest comic book movies, it was engaging and inspiring. I soon realized that I have never before met a more friendly, helpful, or fun group of people as at the Summit. There was such a diverse crowd there that, chances are, even if you belong to a specialized group within game development like myself (Game Writing), you can still find your compatriots at the Summit. I found myself surrounded by people who cared about the same obscure things that I do, such as the future of narrative in games and escaping the mono-myth in your writing. And after the day’s talks a number of us ventured off to continue discussing writing and telling stories while dining on some excellent Chinese food.  (introduced to us by the intrepid James P).

My advice: if you can make it to the IGDA Summit next year, then go. If you’re strapped for cash, then volunteer. If you’re a student, look into the IGDA Scholars program, because not only can you get a free pass, but you can also get a tour of some of the local game studios, such as Bungie and Valve. So don’t miss out on a great opportunity to network with other developers and make new friends. Because the IGDA is about developers helping developers, and you can always use more friends. I know I can.